RCMP spied on Rene Levesque for decades: report

RCMP spies eyed René Lévesque from his days as a globetrotting broadcaster in the 1940s through his turbulent career as a pillar of the sovereignty movement and ascension to Quebec premier in the 1970s, said a report released Tuesday.

RCMP spies eyed René Lévesque from his days as a globetrotting broadcaster in the1940s through his turbulent career as a pillar of the sovereignty movement and ascension to Quebec premier in the 1970s, said a report released Tuesday.

A newly declassified file on Lévesque shows the Mounties suspected the charismatic commentator of being a left-wing subversive while a CBC journalist, recorded his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, and carefully followed the irascible politician's transformation into an iconic separatist.
Quebec Premier Rene Levesque in Montreal in November 1984. ((Canadian Press))

As late as June 1980, shortly after Lévesque had led a failed referendum bid for sovereignty, an RCMP Security Service officer recommended continuing to monitor his activities, "because of the key position he occupies at this time" in Canadian history.

The 2,520-page dossier, spanning 16 volumes, was obtained Tuesday by The Canadian Press from Library and Archives Canada under the Access to Information Act.

Numerous passages and hundreds of full pages in the file, though decades old, were withheld from release.

Personal files compiled by the RCMP's security and intelligence branch can be disclosed through the access law 20 years after a person's death. Lévesque, an inveterate chain-smoker, died of a heart attack at 65 in November 1987.

Massive RCMP files on other politicians, including NDP luminaries David Lewis and Tommy Douglas, have also been declassified in recent years.

Hundreds of pages

By 1972, the Mounties determined that Lévesque was "not considered a subversive revolutionary. He is a strong Quebec nationalist who advocates separation of that province through peaceful and democratic means."

However, the RCMP continued to amass hundreds of pages of secret reports on the fiery politician and chief foil of Pierre Trudeau, who as Liberal prime minister led the federalist struggle to keep Canada united during the 1970s.
Former Prime Minister Trudeau and former Quebec Premier Rene Levesque arrive for dinner at Government House in Ottawa in January 1979. ((Peter Bregg/Canadian Press))

Lévesque, born in Campbellton, N.B., and raised in Quebec, appears to have initially twigged the interest of RCMP security officers due to his role as a correspondent attached to the American military during the Second World War.

After the war,Lévesquejoined Radio-Canada International and later emerged as one of the leading journalists with CBC's French-language television service.

In December 1955, the Mounties drafted a memo about Lévesque's report on a trip to the Soviet Union by Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson.

It appears Lévesque became caught up in the RCMP's hunt for radicals in the corridors of the CBC, as suggested by a 1958 memo entitled "CBC Montreal— Collaboration of Officials with Known Communists."

'Top Secret' file?

His entry into mainstream politics in 1960, as a Liberal member of the Quebec legislature, did not dampen RCMP interest.

Lévesque served in ministerial posts before quitting the Liberals and founding what would become the Parti Quebecois.

A September 1967 memo notes his file "should be upgraded to Top Secret." It says Lévesque had been carrying on a "flirtation" with the separatists but "to date has remained uncommitted."

The memo adds cryptically: "There are other aspects of his file which make it difficult to assess his motivations."

The RCMP Security Service had become seized with gathering intelligence on the separatist movement and its most extreme members in the Front de liberation du Quebec.

Lévesque, who advocated peaceful means, was shadowed by a Mountie during an April 1968 political rally in Quebec City. The spy duly noted Lévesque's fitting comment that the RCMP presence in the province was "for the main purpose of compiling files on persons like him."

"The audience responded very favourably to the remarks he had directed to ridicule the RCMP," the investigator wrote.

The files reveal a keen interest in the Parti Quebecois, which Lévesque led to a stunning electoral victory in 1976. The Mounties closely monitored the party's national congress meetings and Levesque's pronouncements on the prospects of an independent Quebec.

The RCMP seemed to pay special attention when Lévesque went abroad, seeking all the information it could gather about his April 1972 trip to Europe.

Though the file continues through the tense period of the late 1970s and the May 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association, large portions of these records remain secret.

In 1984, the newly formed Canadian Security Intelligence Service took up most security duties of the scandal-ravaged RCMP. A notation indicates Justice David McDonald reviewed Levesque's file in the late 1970s as part of a commission of inquiry into RCMP activities.

A Mountie assessment from June 1980 concluded there was "nothing on this file to indicate that Levesque has committed himself to any organization" other than the Parti Québécois.

However, his position in the Canadian political milieu warranted continued monitoring, said the memo, adding "the protection of the man could justify it."